The season starts Sunday, ready or not. Most teams would tell you the answer is "not."
Success is the byproduct of preparation, as John Wooden once broke it down, and the preparation for this NBA season has been the equivalent of glancing at a Wikipedia page for research before delivering a keynote speech. That's what happens when training camps commence with only enough roster players to play three-on-three, when almost 180 transactions have taken place over the past two weeks under rules from a just-completed collective bargaining agreement that's being interpreted on the fly and when practice time has been so limited that only Allen Iverson would approve of the schedule.
When the league and the players reached an agreement on a new CBA over the Thanksgiving weekend, they also made the ambitious decision to commence a 66-game season on Christmas. After allowing two weeks to review the written terms and have lawyers from both sides sign off on the 600-page working document, that necessitated the even more audacious goal of conducting training camp and the free-agent signing period simultaneously.
So you've got your NBA back. But it might look like the dog got hold of it and chewed it up while it was away. What you're about to see will not be basketball at its best.
"It's not about fans; it's not about aesthetics," an Eastern Conference team executive said. "It's about getting money back in the players' pockets. That's what they fought for."
Once the players agreed to shift approximately $300 million a year back into the pockets of the owners, they wanted to retain as much of their 2011-12 salaries as they could. Playing 66 games limits their pay cut to 26 percent for this season. There were two other contingencies that had to be spoken for: the league's sponsors and network partners. Starting Dec. 25 allowed the NBA to preserve the entire ABC schedule, starting with its splashy Christmas slate, and kept most of the other marquee matchups intact for Turner and ESPN and all the companies that have promotional tie-ins.
The time to assemble a roster and get it ready for the season went from being measured with a calendar to a clock. If some of the contract numbers seem a little high, it's because teams didn't want to waste time in a bidding war or haggling over details. If a bigger number could get the deal done faster, fine. Some of these rosters are a function of convenience, rather than long-term planning. With the onset of the season rapidly approaching, "You go more bird in the hand versus canvass the league for a trade partner," a Western Conference executive said.
One of the biggest challenges was simply getting bodies into the building. The first day of practice for the Knicks, for example, consisted of only six players: Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Landry Fields, Toney Douglas, Bill Walker and Renaldo Balkman. Iman Shumpert, Jared Jeffries and Josh Harrellson were there but had to watch from the sidelines because their contracts weren't finalized. Around the league, the rookies -- the players most in need of every minute of practice -- were often the last ones to sign because teams wanted to preserve every last dollar of salary cap space for free agents before officially committing to the rookie contracts.
Then there were all the players who were rumored to be joining teams. The New Jersey Nets were talking to the Magic about trading for Dwight Howard. They were involved in free-agent discussions with Nene.
And in the name of, yes, preparation, Nets coach Avery Johnson went through various scenarios for various permutations of the roster.
"That's what we did as an exercise with our coaching staff," Johnson said. "If we have Team A, this is what we have, this is what we want, this is how we need to play, this will be our strength in this area. But if we have Team B ... "
In the meantime, the group on the practice court consisted of D-League fillers.
"You just don't have your real team," Johnson lamented.
"I was one of the ones that was voting to have [the start of training camp] delayed until Sunday and Monday. We went ahead and started it [Friday]. In the future, if there's ever a situation like that, they're going to take more."
While teams couldn't talk to their players until the lockout was officially over, they could engage each other in trade discussion. Not even that could always expedite transactions.
On Friday, Dec. 9, the first day the NBA officially opened for business, the Orlando Magic agreed to terms with the Boston Celtics on a trade that sent Brandon Bass to Boston in exchange for Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Von Wafer. The problem was, Wafer had signed to play with Vanoli Cremona in Italy during the lockout. That meant Wafer required an official release from his contract by FIBA, basketball's international ruling body, before he could rejoin the NBA.
If you've ever been to Europe, you know businesses there aren't big on the concept of after-hours or having operators stand by 24/7. Not only did the time difference mean the FIBA office was closed when the Magic and Celtics reached their agreement that Friday, the office remained closed until Monday, which is when FIBA finally cleared Wafer. That cost the players involved two days of practice with their new teams, which in this screwy season represented one-eighth of training camp.
Meanwhile, there were nuances of the new rules governing signings and trades that were still being discovered. One front-office man told me his team tried to make a trade and repeatedly checked with the league offices to make sure it was allowable. Each time, the answer came back "Yes." Then, late in the game, the league said that after further review, the trade wouldn't work.
"What do you mean we couldn't do it?" the team complained to the league. "You said we could."
"We were wrong," the league official replied.
The most famous rejected trade was shot down not for CBA technicalities but for "basketball reasons."
On the eve of training camp, the news broke that the Lakers, Hornets and Rockets were on the verge of a deal that would have sent Chris Paul to Los Angeles, Pau Gasol to Houston, and Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic to New Orleans. You know what happened next. But while you shook your head at the conflict of interest that arose from the NBA squashing a major trade involving the only team it has ever owned, you probably didn't think about the effect on the players who had to show up to work for a team that had agreed to send them elsewhere.
The Lakers are one of six teams with a new coach. Let's say your office was switching to a new software system that required company-wide training. Would you devote full attention to the tech guys' presentation if you thought you were about to get a new job elsewhere?
"To be involved in several talks and have that uncertainty," Gasol said, "that insecurity of what's going to happen in this period of time, when you come into training camp and you're focused and excited about the new season and starting with a new group, but all of a sudden you don't really know if you're going to have that continuity or if you're going to start off in a different place, that puts you a little bit off balance."
I haven't spoken with a single team executive who blames Gasol or others in his position for thinking that way, or who believes these guys should just get over it and lace up the sneakers.
"It's human nature," one general manager said.
The more extreme case was Odom, who was so upset he asked the Lakers to trade him and they obliged, sending him to Dallas for a draft pick. But keep in mind that for every name you see mentioned in a trade rumor, some player somewhere is hauling mental distractions into practice with him.
The players are nowhere close to having the usual physical preparation. Clippers trainer Jasen Powell prefers to run his players through a host of strength and range of motion tests at the start of training camp (or earlier, for those who are already in town), and design an exercise program for each of them based on the results. Normally he has a month to implement the exercise programs before the start of the season. Now that time has been cut in half.
"It's almost like speed dating or cramming for a test," Powell said.
That's the NBA at the start of the 2011-12 season.
Three of the key figures from opening night -- Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Stephen Curry -- are already dealing with injuries, the onset of what could be the results you'd expect when short prep time bleeds into a packed schedule. The meal is always a product of what goes into the oven, and this season is popping out of the microwave, not the broiler. The only good thing that can be said about this chaotic preseason is that it's almost over.
"We thought it was going to be pandemonium," Avery Johnson said. "But it was worse than what we thought."